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PARIS — These are heady times for fashion in Paris — thanks in no small part to Hedi Slimane, whose runway debut for Saint Laurent is arguably the most anticipated event since the late couturier’s retirement show in 2002 — or when Tom Ford took up the reins at Yves Saint Laurent in 2000.
Also poised to electrify this Paris Fashion Week is Raf Simons, who will show his first ready-to-wear collection for Christian Dior on Friday after a strong debut for couture in July.
The face-off of two fortysomething men’s wear mavericks on fashion’s biggest stage is likely to be the dominant story of the European season, compelling other designers in the French capital to up their game. Many top talents here are said to be anxious about Slimane and Simons stealing all the thunder, and are concentrating on putting their best foot forward.
Competition is becoming particularly cluttered among purveyors of minimalism, such as Celine’s Phoebe Philo, back with a runway show after her maternity leave in March.
“I think it will be an exciting season in Paris. It is needed!” declared Karl Lagerfeld. “It’s stimulating and both [Simons and Slimane] are people I like a lot with a lot of talent.”
“I think it’s going to be a fashion moment in Paris,” Alber Elbaz agreed Tuesday during a preview of his spring Lanvin show. “I think it’s something that a lot of people are feeling and thinking about, and I love competition because it moves me forward.
“You know, I’m not a jealous person. I’m only jealous of people who can eat and don’t gain weight,” he continued. “It motivates all of us to work harder and find solutions.”
Ron Frasch, Saks Inc.’s vice chairman and chief merchandising officer, said the Paris season promises to be a blockbuster.
“Everyone’s going to be looking not to be outshone,” he said. “You’re talking about supercompetitive designers. Believe me, they’re going to want to up their game.”
“It’s easy for long-standing brands to become dangerously complacent, so the injection of a new creative director will grab the attention of the fashion world,” said Barbara Atkin, vice president of fashion direction at Toronto-based Holt Renfrew. “The buzz around these two designers should be good for Paris.”
“Of course, the feverish expectation for these new artistic directions increases pressure on the other brands, whether it’s Chloé, Balenciaga, Jil Sander or Celine,” added Agnès Barret, principal of Agent Secret, a Paris-based search firm specializing in creative talent.
That said, the biggest pressure sits on the shoulders of Slimane and Simons, “even if they have the best resources to face it,” Barret said. “The two brands involved are the ones risking the most: a new message needs to be sent in a given framework — one of a historical French fashion brand that wants to tell a different story.”
While acknowledging “competitiveness in terms of economic results,” Barret noted that creatively, a designer must trust “his own inspirations, moods, desires, interpretations, ideas, techniques and also his vision of the brand” rather than engage in competition with other creative people.
Tancrède de Lalun, merchandise manager for men’s and women’s wear at Printemps, said the “Clash of the Titans” — as some in Paris are calling the Simons-Slimane face-off — should “give a boost to all of Paris as a place for international fashion.”
Echoing other observers, de Lalun said designers must be “very clear about their point of view” so they are not overshadowed by the big new fashion statements at Dior and YSL.
According to Paris-based consultant Jean-Jacques Picart, the spring season has the potential to “reset the clock,” ushering in a new era in fashion and marking a generational shift. “If the clock is reset, the time on the clock belongs to the young.
“Everyone is waiting for a change,” he continued. “And consciously or unconsciously, all the designers know this duel will be the main event.”
In Picart’s estimation, the heightened competition will compel designers to “concentrate on their identity” and be “less safe” in their collections. Established designers who “are too isolated in their bubble” are in the most precarious position, whereas young talents could benefit the most from the Dior and YSL renewals, he added.
Picart noted that it’s rare that two acclaimed talents arrive at the same time at two of France’s most iconic couture houses.
“The sky over Paris is very sunny,” he enthused. “These are two men who are so intelligent, even if [their shows] aren’t perfect, it’s impactful.”
Dior and YSL are keeping details about their shows under wraps. Dior confirmed its show would be in a structure it is erecting at Place Vauban, at the foot of the gold-domed chapel at Invalides. Sources said Saint Laurent’s is likely to be held at Grand Palais, but a spokeswoman said she could not confirm the location.
As for other houses, don’t expect a game of one-upmanship in terms of budgets, scale and theatricality of shows.
“No one is going head-to-head,” said Julie Mannion, president of KCD, who works on the production side of the New York-based public relations agency. “However, everyone knows they have to have their game on.”
KCD also noted that its clients were careful to steer clear of events that would compete for daily press coverage with the two houses.
And competition for models is described as intense, with some designers blocking top walkers for four to five hours before their shows. “No designer wants to be told they can’t have the girls they want,” said one source. Slimane is also said to have lined up a pack of new faces who will walk exclusively for Saint Laurent Paris.
As for what kind of fashions to expect, Simons already led Dior down a minimalist path during couture — and Slimane is famed for his less-is-more orientation. Will that be enough to fuel excitement in the industry?
Marigay McKee, chief merchant at Harrods in London, cited sustained demand for the minimalist trend, with “many women picking clever investments that can be mixed and matched. The focus is very much on the cut, fit and fabrication, as our customers are choosing pieces that will last and that can be worn for seasons to come, so quality is everything.”
That said, McKee noted that “we need to have something for everyone and so we look to bridge designers and new generation designers for talent and creativity at a price point.”
In December, Harrods is to open a new room dedicated to labels such as Carven and Isabel Marant, two buzzy Paris-based brands.
Saks’ Frasch said the trend to more “cleaned-up product” has been fanned by Philo’s influential clothes and accessories. However, he cautioned that the press so far has embraced it more passionately than the public.
“I’m not sure the customer is moving as quickly as the design is moving,” he said. “I still think women are going to want sexy clothes, so that’s the alternative to the clean look.”
For example, Frasch cited strong consumer reaction to recent collections by Gucci and Antonio Berardi, in addition to names like Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana and Azzedine Alaïa.
Barret suggested Dior and YSL “might surprise us by avoiding the expected minimalist pitfalls.”
The concentration of talent in the modernist school could also create “opportunities for all those who have a clear vision of women’s fashion outside this segment,” she added.
Picart noted that “there’s always reaction in fashion,” and that minimalism could give way to what he dubbed “modern Baroque” in the post-Christian Lacroix, post-John Galliano, post-Lee Alexander McQueen era. He predicted fashion could soon become more embellished again, “but not too much.”
Observers also agreed that the commercial results, not only the publicity windfall, will be closely watched at Dior and YSL.
“Well-executed brands that answer the needs of the customer today and translate into commercially viable businesses at retail will be what matters most,” said Holt Renfrew’s Atkin.
Beyond the big YSL and Dior debuts, retailers said they continue to pay close attention to the return of the jacket and the leather goods category.
Atkin called handbags and shoes “the most explosive category in the past decade. The growth in these categories has outperformed financially year after year and it doesn’t seem to be tapering off.”